A Travellerspoint blog

Hockey = Life

I can’t believe I have put off writing about European hockey for this long. Perhaps part of the reason is the fact that I am in denial of the NHL lockout. However, I am lucky to have gone to many KHL and Czech Extraliga games in Prague and I plan on going to many more. I need to get my fill of hockey before I get home.
Prague has three hockey teams. Two teams, Sparta Praha and Slavia Praha are part of the Czech Extraliga, playing solely Czech teams. I believe the Prague fans are split down the middle even though historically Sparta has been the better team (though this year they are last in their league). Slavia plays in the O2 arena, your typical giant multipurpose venue, akin to the Verizon Center. Sparta plays in the Tipsport arena from the Soviet era. I like that arena better. The bench seating and small arena make the game much more intimate. Sparta is also home to the Washington Capital’s goalie Michal Neuvirth, who is currently playing with them during the NHL lockout.

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Neuvy!

It’s great to see him in his home country, and it’s a little bit of home for me too.
Prague is also the new home to Lev Praha, the KHL team. Lev switches between arenas and has quite a fan section already. If you need a description of Czech sports fans, please refer to my blog about the soccer game. Hockey fans are that crazy, if not more. However, Prague’s KHL team is also very controversial. Many Czech fans don’t want the Russian owned KHL here due to their history with Russia and the lingering anti-soviet sentiment. I’m happy to have it for more hockey!

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Lev has two NHL players, Zdeno Chara of the Boston Bruins and Jakub Voracek of the Philadelphia Flyers. I love watching Chara play. He is huge – 6 foot 9 inches without skates and 255 pounds of pure muscle. During the 2012 NHL skills competition he clocked the fastest slapshot at 106 miles per hour. He is not only a beast on the ice, but he is an incredible player. Plus, he hi-fived me! I’ve also seen Alexander Ovechkin and Pavel Datsyuk play on away teams visiting Prague.

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Chara can't stand up straight

It’s very interesting to see the difference between the NHL, Czech Extraliga, and KHL playing styles. I won’t bore you non-hockey fans but here are three main differences. 1. No fighting. Any scrap is stopped by the refs at once. This is probably for the best, because the historical bench clearing brawls in the KHL have ended many a career. 2. Pulling the goalie in a delayed penalty. This seems like a smart move, and I think the NHL should look into this strategy. When a delayed penalty is called, the play is immediately stopped as soon as the puck changes hands. Therefore, the team with puck possession can pull their goalie, add a man to the ice, and not worry about the other team stealing and scoring. This happens quite often here, but I have rarely seen it in the NHL. 3. Rare cross checking penalties. I have seen some pretty brutal and obvious cross checks here, and the refs rarely call the penalty. I guess without hard checks and fighting this is the last legal form of violence.

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Hanging with the Sparta mascot

I’m trying to get my hockey fix in before December. I’ve become passionate about the Prague teams and I can’t wait to watch them in the championships in the spring. Hopefully by then, I’ll at least have the NHL to watch!

Posted by srussell912 13:33 Comments (1)

School Days

I suppose I should write a quick little post about school, something quite hard to concentrate on when there is so much to see and do abroad. So here’s a quick summary of what classes are like with CIEE during the first half of the semester.

CIEE students can take classes at CIEE, Charles University, or the famous film school, FAMU. I chose to take all my classes at CIEE due to transfer credit reasons. CIEE classes are completely different than what I am used to at IU. There are about 80 American students in CIEE, compared to the 45,000 at IU. All of our classes are with the same people, with the largest class being 15. It is much more intimate than the 500 person lecture halls at IU, but I feel weird constantly seeing the same people walking around our building. Our professors teach at Charles University as well, and are from not only the Czech Republic, but Slovakia and America as well. The classes are all lecture based, unfortunately, but is typical of Czech classes. However, we automatically have Fridays off, which makes up for our lack of fall break or any holidays.

We are all required to take Czech, starting at the beginning of the program with a two week intensive, 5 hours a day, Monday through Friday. While intensive Czech was pretty brutal, it really throws you into the basic language and culture, helping ease culture shock. In addition to Czech, I am taking four classes – Media Impact in Eastern and Central Europe, Anthropology of Czech Society and Culture, Czech Cinema, and Contemporary Czech Culture: Alternative Lifestyles.

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Visiting the Radio Free Europe complex

The last class is certainly my favorite. Our professor is involved with underground music, graffiti, and art associations. She toured with her band throughout Europe as a young adult, and is truly passionate about teaching the subject of alternative culture. We attended a Tata Bojs concert as a class and visited a legal graffiti site. This class has given me a completely different view of graffiti and the history of music throughout the soviet era and today. This week we are going to Prague’s Queer Film Festival to experience the LBGTQ culture of the Czech Republic. I can’t wait!

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Legal graffiti

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Tata Bojs

There are very little assignments in the classes, which is good for traveling and sightseeing. However, that means that my grade rides on midterms and finals. I was nervous at first, but I was well prepared for my midterms and feel confident with my final essays. While classes are certainly hard to concentrate on when I want to experience so many other countries, I’m glad I have a background of the country I am living in.

Posted by srussell912 09:23 Comments (1)

People and Animals

Little Hanoi, Zoo Praha, Troja Palace, and Museums

I haven’t traveled outside of Prague as much as I expected to, and I am quite happy with that choice. This summer, I wrote out a list of about 20 cities I wanted to visit. However, before I left I talked to study abroad alums that said their biggest regret was not staying in their home city and truly getting to know the culture in which they lived. Though I want to travel as much as possible in my life, I truly love weekends in Prague.

A few weekends ago, I viewed a smorgasbord of sites in Prague. I went to Sapa, or Little Hanoi, a small Vietnamese community at the end of a tram line. We walked through gates guarded by marble lions and into what reminded me of Chinatown in D.C. There were shops and tents filled with everything you can imagine – purses, leggings, nail polish, etc. Most people only spoke Vietnamese, a little Czech, and no English. It was like being in another country. We wandered around into the little shops and bought spices and seaweed. The vegetables looked like they were on steroids, giant melons and cucumbers the size of my arm. For lunch we found a small café serving only pho and fried bread, which was absolutely delicious and clearly homemade. We got bubble tea for dessert, completing the experience.

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Giant cucumber in Sapa

The next day, I went to the Prague Zoo, one of the best in the world. Since I am so close to the National Zoo in D.C., I couldn’t imagine anything bigger. However, we spent about four hours at the Prague Zoo, and had to leave early because of rain. The park was huge, with familiar animals as well as some I have never heard of. Some exhibits were walk though, and there were no fences or glass to separate us from, for instance, bats. I was very excited, but my friends were not. My favorite exhibit was the sea lions of course. We watched them for a while, hoping one would go down the giant slide into the water. Unfortunately they were more interested in sunning themselves. The zoo was fun, however the signs and descriptions were mostly in Czech so we had to guess what some animals were.

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Buy your own elephant poop

Across from the zoo is Troja Palace, a baroque palace from 1679. The palace is surrounded by gardens, sculptures, and fountains depicting angles, gods, and giants. A collection of rare vases sits near the balcony steps. We did not venture inside, but the outside was spectacular. The palace is light red with white accents, which goes nicely with the green gardens all around it. From the gardens, we could see across the hills down into the city of Prague, and up towards the top of hills dotted with vineyards. It made for a relaxing stroll, but would have been prettier if it wasn’t cloudy and drizzling.

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Ashley and I at Troja Palace

Heather and I also went to the Transportation Museum and Bedrich Smetana Museum. The Transportation Museum is in a warehouse originally built to assemble and fix city trams. Every tram used in the history of Prague is housed in the building, from horse drawn trams to modern trams used today. The most interesting was the funeral tram, which could hold eight coffins per car. Since the information was mostly in Czech, I’m still not sure where the funeral trams took the coffins and why so many coffins were put into one car. However, seeing the physical timeline of technological production in vehicles was quite interesting.

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My favorite tram

The Bedrich Smetana Museum depicted the life and artifacts of Bedrich Smetana, a famous Czech composer. You would definitely recognize his most famous song, Ma Vlast. The museum presented copies of his diaries and compositions, as well as props and instruments used in operas he wrote. I did not know much about Smetana before this museum, but it was certainly interesting to learn about someone Czechs respect and love.
We then went to the Museum of Torture, which had instruments used in torture from the beginning of Czech society up until the last legal torture objects. It was pretty gruesome, but interesting. It reminded me of the torture museum in Scotland, especially seeing the finger screws. This object fitted around the criminal’s fingertips and slowly squeezed and released the fingers, making blood flow in and out, becoming more and more tight and painful. There was also a post with a triangle on top, where a victim would be forced to sit for days, discomforting and ripping the genitals. That was probably the most brutal instrument in the museum.

With my Anthropology class, we went to the Museum of Communism. I enjoyed the visit because it gave me a more complete image of life under the Communist regime, something that I could only imagine from readings and pictures. The most interesting part was the set of a typical shop during that era. Even though I have learned about the scarcity of goods it was shocking to physically see how empty an average shop was. It made me realize how desperate these times actually were.

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Typical shop during Communism

I was, however, disappointed by the size and set up of the museum. Though it was packed full of artifacts, it was small and seemed crowded, which gave it a disorganized feeling. If it was more spread out and open, it would be easier to look at each artifact individually and it would give it more of a professional atmosphere.
I have so many more things to accomplish while I’m in Prague - if only I was here for an extra semester!

Posted by srussell912 09:07 Comments (1)

Castle Hopping

Day Trips

It seems that everywhere I look in Czech Republic sits a castle older than my home country. With my program, we are required to go on two academic trips during the semester. Unfortunately I was sick for the overnight trip, but I was able to go on two day trips the next weekend.

Both day trips featured beautiful landscapes, age-old castles, and spectacular hikes. On Friday we left and drove two hours north of Prague to Castle Sychrov. It seemed to me more like a palace and reminded me of the White House with many themed rooms and colored walls. Originally it was a military stronghold from the 19th century, but it was bought and used by a French aristocratic family. The castle is surrounded by forests and gardens which would be perfect for relaxing and walking on a warm day. Inside, there was an abundance of floor-to-ceiling paintings and antlers. The owners clearly enjoyed hunting in their spare time. There was a small ‘oriental’ tearoom, as it was popular in that time to feature an Eastern or Asian style room. My favorite room, however, was the library, something that is rarely found today outside of an e-reader. There are thousands of books housed here, and one of the chairs folds out into a ladder to reach the top rows.

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Sychrov - main staircase

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Sychrov Library

After a delicious lunch, we took a drive to see what an 18th century middle-class Czech house looks like. The Dlask’s Farmstead was owned by the village sheriff and is actually one of the larger, richer houses of that era. The house was made of wood and had multiple floors and rooms, as well as a balcony and brick oven. In the barn we saw a few sleighs – proving that winter snows are common here.

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Outside view of Dlask's Farmstead

My favorite part of the trip was the 13th century Castle Valdstejn, situated precariously on the edge of a cliff. The views were incredible, looking out over the rocky terrain and down to tiny villages below. The castle and area around it were used as a hiding place for outcasts, robbers, and Protestants. It is now used for cultural events and church services. After a hike down the hill through sandstone rocks and tall trees, we piled back on the bus and headed home.

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Caslte Valdstejn from the back

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On Saturday we drove back to an area near where I was on Friday. We traced the favorite writing destinations of Karel Hynek Macha, a 19th century poet and author. He famously walked (yes, walked) to Italy to gain inspiration for his stories, as well as to the castles in Northern Bohemia. I’m glad we took the bus.

Our first stop was Castle Jestrebi, a castle built directly into a rock from the 13th century. It was quite small, but the ‘roof’ was open and flat with a wonderful panoramic view. Below the castle we wandered through an old German cemetery. Some of the tombstones had a triangle with an eye and light beams – we decided they were members of the Illuminati.

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This castle rocks

We then drove to Macha’s Lake, a picturesque lake between hills of forests, a perfect setting for poems. We sat on the dock and got harassed by a swan, wishing it was warm enough to enjoy the multiple huge waterslides that dotted the coastline.

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Swan!

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If only...

After, we climbed a steep mountain to Castle Bezdez, a 13th century royal stronghold. This is a stereotypical castle with high ceilings, multiple rooms and wells, and two large towers. Supposedly there is a treasure buried somewhere on the premises, which attracted many treasure hunters until the castle became an official tourist attraction. However, during World War II visits to the castle were forbidden because of a secret Nazi airport nearby.

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Looking out from one tower down to another

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Original Cathedral

Our final stop was Castle Houska, another 13th century castle. However, an earlier wooden fortified settlement was believed to have existed in the 9th century. This castle, like Sychrov, looks more like a palace to me, or even just a large mansion. It was mostly decorated in a modern way and is used for many cultural events. The Plastic People of the Universe, a band that helped start the Velvet Revolution, recorded an album in one of the rooms.

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PPU's recording room

The most interesting part of the castle was the ‘gateway to hell’, deep in the cellars. Supposedly the castle was built over a bottomless pit, thought to be the entrance to Hell. The castle was built to keep demons from entering Earth, and a shrine of devils and other ‘evil’ objects was built in the lowest cellar.

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Me schvitzing down in Hell

While both day trips were fun and interesting, and the old castles were incredible sights, by the end of Saturday I felt content not seeing another castle for a while. However, it did give me an appreciation for the architects of the 13th century.

Posted by srussell912 01:45 Comments (1)

Winetoberfest in Znojmo

While the majority of the program was in Munich celebrating Oktoberfest, my friend Molly and I decided to celebrate our own ‘Winetoberfest’ in Moravia. Moravia is the southern part of the Czech Republic, famous for its many vineyards and excellent wine.
We took a day trip to Znojmo, a town south of Brno and close to the Austrian border. We took a bus early in the morning, travelling through rolling hills and small farm towns. We knew we wanted to go to a winery in Znojmo, but neither of us had actually planned out anything going into this trip. It turned out to be quite the adventure.

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In Znojmo

Once we were dropped off at the main train station in Znojmo, we went immediately to find lunch. We wandered into a small café and grabbed lunch. We were able to get English menus, which made us think that someone in the restaurant would be able to point us to the nearest vineyard. However, after saying ‘vino’ over and over, we realized that our minimal amount of Czech may not be useful at all. As we began to wander down the street, the waitress ran after us and gave us a business card of Znovin, a local winery. We headed back to the train station and after speaking broken Czech with a worker, I attempted to call a taxi. My Czech was definitely not good enough and the guy hung up on me. The Czech worker was nice enough to call us a taxi, and we jumped in hoping that he would take us to the winery and not kill us on the way.

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Beginning of the Burcak Festival

I’m alive and writing this today, so he did in fact drop us off at the winery and we were surprised to walk right into a Burcak (young wine) festival. There were large, metal vats that held different types of Burcak. They had food stands and even a band playing. The winery’s cellars and vineyard’s were completely open to the public. While absolutely no one spoke English, we tasted a bunch of wonderful wines inside the winery and brought home a couple bottles to share with our friends. We wandered around the area, met a wandering goat, and relaxed with our wine, enjoying a sunny day.

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Inside the cellar filled with wine bottles

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Wine tasting at Znovin

About 45 minutes before our bus left for Prague, we decided we could easily walk back to the train station without relying on a taxi. We walked in the direction that people were coming from, finding a gorgeous viewpoint overlooking the town and river. However, we were totally lost. Luckily, we found the train tracks and knew which direction led into town, and decided to walk on the tracks to find the station. With about 15 minutes until the bus left, we were starting to look for hostels or hotels to stay in for the night, thinking we were nowhere near the station. We stopped in an inn and found a man who spoke English (thank goodness!) and found out that we were right behind the station and just had to take a bridge across the train tracks to find the bus. With only a couple of minutes to spare we made it on the bus and slept the whole way home.
Znojmo was a true local Czech experience. The fact that hardly anyone spoke English really made the trip an adventure and made me appreciate Prague as a large, international city.

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Looking out over the town

Posted by srussell912 03:42 Comments (0)

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